Backwards through a telescope

Brian Ferneyhough at the RNCM

Brian FerneyhoughIn the last week and a half it has been in­ter­esting to ob­serve from a dis­tance the build-up and fall-out from the Ferneyhough day in London. Thankfully, the Radio 3 broad­cast meant I could hear the music as well as the sur­rounding re­ac­tion. Radio 4 ran an item on the Total Immersion day ap­par­ently de­signed so as to scare off un­fa­miliar listeners — or is any pub­li­city good publicity? — and the blo­go­sphere swelled with re­sponses to both the music and the ac­com­pa­nying verbal ma­terial, either in pre-concert talks or pro­gramme notes. You can hear the Radio 4 item on The Rambler where there are also two re­views. Other re­views can be found at Composition Today, Boring Like A Drill (who also wrote about the Today pro­gramme item), the Guardian, Telegraph and London Evening Standard. Interestingly enough, this was the same week that Anna Nicole opened at the Royal Opera House and des­pite vast mu­sical dif­fer­ences — and the hype for Turnage’s opera has been some­thing else en­tirely — these two events seemed to stir up some sim­ilar de­bates: about com­pre­hens­ib­ility, ac­cess­ib­ility (what that means and whether it is ne­ces­sary or valu­able) and the po­s­i­tion of art in wider so­ciety. Important de­bates to be having.

Most in­ter­esting from the po­s­i­tion of an ‘out­side’ ob­server was how much the present­a­tion of Ferneyhough’s thought at the Barbican seemed to have ali­en­ated people. At first this didn’t sur­prise me — Ferneyhough has a fear­some repu­ta­tion in a sim­ilar way to how ‘Darmstadt’ still pro­vokes an un­war­ranted and out­datedly fearful re­sponse among Anglophone audi­ences — but then I saw him speaking at the Royal Northern College of Music on Monday. He came to work with some of the stu­dents, present one of his newest works, Sisyphus Redux, in a work­shop with flautist Richard Craig and field ques­tions from the audi­ence in an open forum. Observing one of the stu­dent re­hearsals on Sunday night, I was im­pressed by how un­be­liev­ably per­ceptive he was in re­hearsal, pulling up the players for the quarter tones and frac­tional rhythms that so often get glossed over as ges­ture or de­tail merely present to give a sheen of com­plexity to the work. It would be foolish to fet­ishise the composer’s ears, but it is worth noting that he knows what he wants and it is not just about com­prom­ising the per­formers’ com­fort. Talking about the short string quartet move­ment Adagissimo (which you can watch with score on YouTube), he told the vi­olist and cel­list, whose ma­terial is a slow-moving har­monic layer in con­trast to the vi­olins’ fast, har­mon­ic­ally static, jerkily re­it­er­ated ges­tures, that their ma­terial was ‘Sehnsuchtsmusik like Tristan & Isolde and that rub­bish’, it was ‘leading note har­mony’, their 1/8 tones were there to push at each other, never quite reaching a prom­ised pitch. A later tri­tone between the lower strings he de­scribed as ‘un­re­solved longing’. He seemed to be a com­poser heavily aware of his mu­sical his­tory and tra­di­tion, but not ‘geeky’ (as one com­menter on Composition Today per­ceived it) or de­lib­er­ately obfuscatory.

It was a sim­ilar story in his work­shop with Richard Craig and later the open forum chaired by Fabrice Fitch. The work­shop was in­tensely prac­tical, moving through the score, ex­plaining nota­tional prac­tices and com­pos­i­tional pro­cesses, re­hearsing de­tails in the flute part, dis­cussing dif­fi­culties. Sisyphus Redux uses the idea of Sisyphus’s daily struggle of rolling his rock up the moun­tain as a com­pos­i­tional im­petus, each line of the score rep­res­enting the composer’s at­tempt to out­think the gods and find a novel way round the chal­lenge of get­ting the meta­phor­ical rock up the moun­tain. These phrases are not per­cept­ible to the listener, the title refers simply to the com­pos­i­tional im­pulse. In most of the work there are two sim­ul­tan­eous lines (or voices or pro­cesses, if you prefer) and Ferneyhough jok­ingly ob­served ‘It turns out that it’s much harder to do two lines on one in­stru­ment than it is say on a piano. I don’t know why that is but it just ends up like that.’ There is a sym­pathy for the dif­fi­culties the per­former faces that doesn’t re­solve it­self in avoiding pos­sib­il­ities simply be­cause they’re dif­fi­cult. As he put it, ‘I’m really of­fering the player mul­tiple paths through the learning process.’

In the forum there were mo­ments that might have come across as more ‘aca­demic’, i.e. using po­ten­tially un­fa­miliar ter­min­o­logy. What Tim Rutherford-Johnson ob­serves in Les froisse­ments d’ailes de Gabriel as an at­tempt ‘to create a mu­sical thread that is im­possible to as­sim­ilate, such that barely grasped re­col­lec­tions and im­ages pile up in the memory, like the de­tritus of his­tory, to be sorted through on some as-yet-undetermined fu­ture oc­ca­sion’ seems to me to be a char­ac­ter­istic at­tempt on Ferneyhough’s part to en­gage very dir­ectly with ques­tions about how the audi­ence is listening. Ferneyhough said ‘mu­sical lan­guage car­ries its his­tory on its back’ so it is hardly sur­prising given his his­tor­ical po­s­i­tion that he is aware of and some­times uses ter­min­o­logy bor­rowed from re­search in to per­cep­tion and brain sci­ence. That’s not aca­demic or ob­scure, it’s an honest at­tempt to deal with the real­ities he faces as an artist in a ra­tional fashion. However, given the op­por­tunity, he readily spoke in as clear terms as pos­sible about the prob­lems faced by both in­ter­preters and listeners. Given the per­sistent richly de­tailed sur­face of this music, how does the per­former find the ‘op­timum window of re­gard’ so as to po­s­i­tion this con­stant flow of in­form­a­tion in re­la­tion to the wider form? This ques­tion is not some ob­scure ex­per­i­ment in cog­nitive sci­ence but in­stead the age-old ques­tion of how do we make this speak? How do we give people a chance to en­gage with this material?

So what happened in the London talks? Were they set up with old ex­pect­a­tions un­ques­tioned or did Ferneyhough feel he was talking to two very dis­tinct audi­ences and ad­just his rhet­oric ac­cord­ingly? It seems a shame if the op­por­tunity was missed to re-evaluate a com­poser more thor­oughly in front of what was pre­sum­able a large-ish audience.

Hearing Richard Craig’s ex­plosive per­form­ance of Unity Capsule on Monday af­ter­noon, I was aware that the re­la­tion­ship of parts to the whole was somehow dif­ferent from what I was used to. A friend re­cently said he was bothered that in his own music he was somehow leading his listener by the hand too much: ‘here is this ma­terial, now here is some­thing dif­ferent, now here they are trans­forming and in­ter­acting, etc.’ I ex­ag­gerate, but it is true that there is a re­mark­able lack of this in Ferneyhough. To borrow from in­form­a­tion theory: there seems to be very little re­dund­ancy in the system. There is no un­ne­ces­sary grammar couching ma­terial to cla­rify it, in­stead there is a con­stant flow (of many streams) whose form is in­ef­fable yet still felt. At the end of Unity Capsule, I would not have been able ex­plain — as is often pos­sible — how the work fitted to­gether in terms of sec­tions and ma­terial nor does it fall into that cat­egory that in­cludes some­thing like Georg Friedrich Haas’s long-breathed, gradual trans­itions. Instead I felt a su­per­fi­cially in­ex­plic­able co­her­ence, per­haps meas­ur­able most straight­for­wardly as the level of en­ergy varying over the course of the work, which rat­cheted up quite sig­ni­fic­antly in the last third, but must be put down to a mas­terful achieve­ment on the part of both com­poser and per­former in reaching past our self-aware listening ap­par­atus to con­nect with us in a dif­ferent way.

Towards the end of the open forum Ferneyhough said, ‘I don’t like the idea that music is sep­ar­ated from life.’ The de­bate that Anna Nicole pro­voked — does it bring a tra­di­tion back to gen­eral rel­ev­ance — is in fact one many mu­si­cians en­gage with, but in mul­ti­fa­ceted ways. The route of poly­styl­istic music and pop-cultural plot lines is one of many such en­gage­ments not an isol­ated beacon.

As a foot­note: One nice bit of fall-out from the re­cent focus on Ferneyhough is that you can down­load some of his scores, in­cluding the pieces played at the Total Immersion day, from Edition Peters:

This entry was written by Chris, posted on Saturday, 5 March 2011 at 3:31 pm, filed under Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Microbiography

    Chris Swithinbank is a British-Dutch com­poser who works with both acoustic in­stru­ments and elec­tronic sounds. He is cur­rently a stu­dent at Harvard University with Chaya Czernowin.
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